Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Throughout the past month, the University of Bath has supported mental health charity MIND’s ‘Time to Change’ national campaign, seeking to raise awareness about mental health issues. The Vice-Chancellor Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell and Students’ Union President Ellie Hynes jointly pledged to eliminate negative attitudes towards people with mental health conditions. It’s time to talk.
As a postgraduate, I have often struggled with my mental health. Undoubtedly, each postgraduate has their own personal experience of doing a Masters or a PhD, but I believe that my experiences are probably shared by others. The stress alone felt unbearable, like a sharp dagger nestling against the back of my head, and I did wonder if I’d suffer a sense of relief when it strikes through my skull. There is so much pressure to constantly produce research; leading to a brief respite and elation when that research eventually bears fruit, but crushing disappointment until those new and important results are composed. My eyes felt pinned open. I couldn’t sleep properly. I would wake up, after sleeping a pitiful amount of poor hours, feeling groggier than when I went to bed, usually with some physical symptoms. The fear of failure is a potent motivator, but it is a corrosive and stressful one.
There is also the isolation. I was working on a subject area, shared and understood by few others. I would have other people in my office, but they were also pursuing their work. I would often have trains of thought when I was away from my desk, and I didn’t want to derail their thoughts by deeply involving them in a conversation. When my partner went away temporarily for her own career, I could go for days, even weeks, without holding a proper or meaningful conversation. I could come to and from university without ever smiling in the meantime. I just couldn’t talk to anyone other than my supervisor about my research worries. I didn’t want to believe I was a failure, and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my concerns about my productivity or the standard of my research.
The stress and isolation does not appear on any postgraduate prospectus. These twin pressures had a severe effect on my mental tranquillity and my outward civility. I used to hold quite high standards for my personal behaviour. Over the course of my PhD, I became rather angry, irritable and unhappy. Things which I had previously found funny and frivolous were now incredibly annoying. I attempted to use food and drinks I enjoyed to regulate my mood, further harming my personal health. I worried that, rather than being an emotional support to my friends, I was a malign pollutant to them. I wouldn’t say I was depressed; I felt strictly limited to how happy I could be. It was like sunlight had been erased, and inside that encapsulated darkness, there was little hope of being warm or exultant again.
The next step for mental health treatment is the rejection of this binary view: that says you are either well and happy, or ill, where the latter is conflated with being primed for sectioning. There is a strange disparity between mental and physical health: people are not greatly ostracised for having colds or twisting their ankles, but they can be for suffering anxiety or depression. However, I hope that the mental health of students becomes a key issue for the University of Bath and the Students’ Union. Before I leave the University, I do need to thank all the people who helped me during my time here, and apologise to anyone who I treated poorly.
Note: This article was published in bathimpact, with the section edited by Helen Edworthy. Holly Narey is the current Editor-in-Chief.